Bail reform has been one of the most significant public policy achievements in recent US history. Research from places like New York, where state lawmakers voted to end cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent crimes starting in 2020, tells the story of that success. Yet too many Democrats are running away from the issue while pushing the narrative that this is a toxic development that cost the party seats midterm.
New York City has remained safe even though the headlines might make you think otherwise. The Big Apple is one of the safest cities in the United States
Although police, county officials, and national experts incorrectly call bail reform a disaster, in the few places like New York State that have tried it, bail reform was a victory for freedom. It has enabled tens of thousands of people to fight their charges while keeping their jobs and homes and supporting their loved ones, and the pressure of pre-trial detention that too often pushes people to plead guilty to return home. Bail reform was a victory for fiscal responsibility, saving taxpayers millions of dollars by avoiding the costs of unnecessary mass detention. And bail reform has also proven that it is possible to maximize liberty without endangering public safety.
The research found no link between bail reform and any increase in crime. In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, a court settlement has barred most people charged with minor offenses from pretrial detention since 2019. A comprehensive study of hundreds of thousands of cases by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice found that when people were released from pre-trial detention in the county, the likelihood of re-arrest over three years actually decreased by more than 6%.
At the same time, New York City remained safe even though the headlines might suggest otherwise. The Big Apple is one of the safest cities in the United States. Of its five boroughs, Staten Island, Manhattan and Queens are among the 15 safest counties in the US county of Nassau, which includes western Long Island – where 64 mayors have banded together in an ill-advised appeal. for the repeal of bail reform – has been rated twice since the law’s implementation as the safest place to live in the country by US News and World Report. The county police department found no link between bail reform and the new arrests.
Yet after the midterm elections, many national Democrats blamed the party’s historic midterm losses in the New York State Congress on New York politicians whom they accused of not being tough enough on criminality. Several leaders have directly pointed the finger at the reform of the bond.
Laura Gillen, a Democrat and staunch opponent of bail reform who lost her race for Congress from Long Island, caught on Twitter to argue that bail reform was one reason the Democrats lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives. New York City Mayor Eric Adams wrote an Election Day postmortem that applauded a Republican Party for ‘asking the right questions’ about public health and safety before appearing to blame bail reform for Democratic midterm losses. And a prominent political strategist told The New York Times that Democrats lost control of the House because they did not cave in to bail reform.
But the opposite is true. The Democrats lost because they ran away from the truth about bail reform, amplifying the lies instead of defending what should have been their political victory. In short, they have made themselves indistinguishable from the Republicans on this subject.
New York Democrats could have used data to educate their constituents on how liberty and public safety can co-exist and save money while demystifying the rampant fear campaign as the election nears. They could have indicated the destabilizing effect that the pandemic has had on communities – a much more logical explanation for the short-term universal increase in certain crimes in all corners of America – instead of blaming modest bail reforms.
But they didn’t. And they lost. Worse, their continued amplification of right-wing misconceptions about the law further reinforces public misperceptions and the desire for greater toughness.
Other candidates who spoke the truth about the success of bail reform and stood firm against alarmism won, including New York State Senator Michelle Hinchey, whose district was recently reconfigured, which defeated longtime GOP incumbent Sue Serino; State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who championed bail reform and maintained his Democratic supermajority; and Governor Kathy Hochul, who backed the facts on bail reform. The victories extend beyond New York to multiple races in Illinois, including Governor JB Pritzker’s, as well as Harris County, Texas.
So why are so many Democrats still choosing to shy away from successful politics? The party still seems to dread the “soft on crime” attacks of the 1980s and 1990s. But times have changed. For starters, demographics are changing. People under 30, often spurred on by candidates who promise to fight racial injustice, climate change and reproductive rights, continue to turn out in droves at the polls. And increased knowledge of the criminal justice system, through social media, academic work, litigation, massive social movements, and the work of activists across the country, has changed public perceptions of crime and punishment.
We are at a critical moment. The truth about bail reform isn’t just a political game — it’s a moral imperative. Public opinion is too often driven by fear rather than facts, but that is no reason for politicians to ignore them. It is essential to stand behind them.